The 50 Best Movies on Amazon Prime Right Now (July 2020)

Movies Lists Amazon Prime
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The 50 Best Movies on Amazon Prime Right Now (July 2020)

Amazon Prime is a teeming streaming treasure trove of some of the most esoteric, wonderful and underseen cinema of the past 80 years, though good picks can feel nearly impossible to cull from the sometimes overwhelming glut of weirdly terrible titles buried in Prime’s nether regions. And that’s not to mention the counterintuitive, migraine-inducing browsing, or the service’s penchant for dropping a title unexpectedly only for it to reappear under a different link just as unexpectedly. Who can keep track of any of this stuff?

Well, we can. Or, at least, we try.

Here are 50 of the best movies available to stream on Amazon Prime right now:

Top of the Heap

top-of-the-heap-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1972
Director: Christopher St. John
Stars: Christopher St. John, Paula Kelly, Florence Saint Peter, Almeria Quinn, Richard M. Dixon
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Rotten Tomatoes Score: NR
Rating: R
Runtime: 91 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

George Lattimer (Christopher St. John) is a Washington D.C. cop with a cigarette set sternly in his jaw and a penchant for reminding his white colleagues that “I’ll do whatever I goddamn want.” He’s angry, really angry, which makes sense: His fellow cops don’t trust him because he’s the only Black cop in the department—a point of pride that’s long lost its lustre—and his friends and family hate him for turning his back on their community by policing it. He’s pissed that his wife gives him so much grief about his job whenever she’s not pestering him to talk to their teenager daughter (Almeria Quinn) about sex and drugs and the danger of the Nation’s Capitol. He’s pissed that his daughter actually is on drugs and doing sex and roaming the streets of the Nation’s capitol with that Fernandez boy. He’s pissed that he knows that no matter how well he does on the exam, he’ll never get that sergeant promotion, and he’s pissed that his dipshit cracker partner doesn’t get that. Or doesn’t want to. He’s so pissed he retreats into oneiric fantasies about being one of the first astronauts—not just the first Black astronaut, but the first astronaut, his skin never a factor in his job prospects. And these wild, cathartic fantasies only piss George off even more, to the point that he needs to unwind and get high and strip naked and remind himself of who he really is with his mistress, the synecdochal Black Chick (Paula Kelly), before he has to return to the real white world where he can’t take the bus without confronting the violent duality of being a Black cop in Washington D.C. Similarly, Top of the Heap, Christopher St. John’s first and last film, presents itself as blaxploitation, feigning at violence and pulp, and sometimes even reveling in both, but then veering hard towards psychedelia and sci-fi when its tension feels most palpable. It’s an act of grace that it all holds together so strikingly—or an act of transcendent rage. —Dom Sinacola


I Am Not Your Negro

not-your-negro-poster.jpg Year: 2017
Director: Raoul Peck
Genre: Documentary
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 99%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 93 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Raoul Peck focuses on James Baldwin’s unfinished book Remember This House, a work that would have memorialized three of his friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. All three black men were assassinated within five years of each other, and we learn in the film that Baldwin was not just concerned about these losses as terrible blows to the Civil Rights movement, but deeply cared for the wives and children of the men who were murdered. Baldwin’s overwhelming pain is as much the subject of the film as his intellect. And so I Am Not Your Negro is not just a portrait of an artist, but a portrait of mourning—what it looks, sounds and feels like to lose friends, and to do so with the whole world watching (and with so much of America refusing to understand how it happened, and why it will keep happening). Peck could have done little else besides give us this feeling, placing us squarely in the presence of Baldwin, and I Am Not Your Negro would have likely still been a success. His decision to steer away from the usual documentary format, where respected minds comment on a subject, creates a sense of intimacy difficult to inspire in films like this. The pleasure of sitting with Baldwin’s words, and his words alone, is exquisite. There’s no interpreter, no one to explain Baldwin but Baldwin—and this is how it should be. —Shannon M. Houston


Stop Making Sense

stop-making-sense.jpg Year: 1984
Director: Jonathan Demme
Genre: Documentary, Musical
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 99 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Lester Bangs once wrote an essay about “Heaven,” the Talking Heads song that in so many ways epitomizes and holds aloft Jonathan Demme’s concert film. In it, Bangs fixated on one of David Byrne’s iconic lines: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever really happens.” Heaven, he explained, is—to Byrne’s coke-addled mind—a way of life where all of the stimuli of modern society couldn’t reach him. Couldn’t affect him. Couldn’t whip him up into a frenzy. This, according to both Bangs and Byrne, is truly Nirvana. Stop Making Sense happened over two nights at the Pantages Theater in 1983, and the second song on the setlist is “Heaven,” set against a bare stage on the cusp of a drastic remodel. From there, the set, as well as the band, builds itself—instruments and writhing bodies and elaborately weird backdrops are added, one upon another, until the stage is absolutely seething with life. And so, not only was Stop Making Sense a document of a legendary band at the height of their powers, but it even today seems like an unheralded synergy of movement and sound, of image and artist—so much so that the band allows us to watch as they destroy, and then re-do, their own idea of Heaven. —Dom Sinacola


Who Killed Captain Alex?

who-killed-captain-alex-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2010
Director: Nabwana IGG
Stars: Kakule William, VJ Emmie, Bukenya Charles, Kasumba Isma, G. Puffs, Faizat Muhammed, Bisaso Dauda, Sseruyna Ernest
Genre: Action & Adventure, Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: NR
Rating: NR
Runtime: 70 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Since 2005, or thereabouts, Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana has filmed high-octane action films on budgets rarely (and reportedly, facts of the director’s methods now sublimated into the realm of myth) surpassing $200 with casts made up of family members and various denizens of his home neighborhood Wakalinga, a slum of Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. Nabwana IGG’s studio, dubbed Wakaliwood with full reverence for the ’80s icon-led action flicks that primarily influenced him—your Rambos, your Commandos and Cobras, your Lethal Weapons, your Bloodsports and Kickboxers—has produced a blessed bounty of “da best of da best movies,” maniacally violent smorgasbords of shoot-outs and children who practice kung fu, all narrated by VJ Emmie, whose voiceover commentary explains some of the exigencies of the Wakaliwood universe but mostly just gets hype on all the mayhem. The earliest available of Nabwana IGG’s opuses is Who Killed Captain Alex?, the story of exceptional Uganda People’s Defense Force officer Captain Alex (Kakule William) and his nemesis, a leader of the Tiger Mafia only called Richard (Sseruyna Ernest), fighting out a rivalry that leads to Alex’s murder (natch) and the emergence of Alex’s brother, Bruce U (Bukenya Charles), as a local martial arts hero. VJ Emmie explains all of this, as well as the origins of Bruce U’s skills and Captain Alex’s sexual reputation, in vibrant exultation throughout. It’s insanely infectious; more than an enthusiastic showcase for DIY filmmaking, Who Killed Captain Alex?—and all the Wakaliwood films, for that matter—is an ebullient celebration and welcome exception to everything you thought you knew about what makes a movie, action or otherwise, really any good. —Dom Sinacola


Hale County This Morning, This Evening

hale-county-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: RaMell Ross
Genre: Documentary
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 76 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

In Hale County This Morning, This Evening, seeing truly is believing, or at least comprehending, because putting what filmmaker RaMell Ross has done into words is as close to impossible as writing about film can get. A portrait of Alabama’s Hale County—a place named for Deputy to the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States and career racist Stephen F. Hale—as well as a glimpse into the lives of Ross’s family, friends and neighbors, the film defies documentarian conventions through structure and language: There are no talking heads, no bland expositional devices, only stream of consciousness storytelling occasionally interspersed with intertitles that playfully, but soberly, fill in the names of Ross’s subjects, or provide context we would certainly lack without them. In its interior, free-associative way, Hale County This Morning, This Evening is thrilling, a word not often used for characterizing slice-of-life documentaries. (In line with that: If possible, it must be seen on the big screen, too.) Ross boils down lifetimes and the passage of days, weeks, months, perhaps even beyond, into 70 minutes, and, as a result, the movie ultimately lives in between the passage of seconds. Rather than feel compressed, Hale County This Morning, This Evening emerges sweeping and grand, an elusive, awesome American fable. —Andy Crump


Dead Ringers

dead-ringers-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1988
Director: David Cronenberg
Stars: Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold, Shirley Douglas
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Horror
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%
Rating: R
Runtime: 115 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

In Dead Ringers David Cronenberg reins in the extremities of his earlier genre works into something resembling a chamber drama—except there’s always a catch with Cronenberg, and this time he almost cruely toys with the identities of identical twins, gynecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle (very loosely based on Stewart and Cyril Marcus), played by a Jeremy Irons who is doubled on himself through black movie magic. Cronenberg also plays with the audience’s perception of the duo, taking steps to establish Beverly as the “good” twin (more sensitive) and Elliot as the “bad” one (more bullish) before eventually degrading those categorizations and blurring the lines between the two characters, in more ways than one. A troubled relationship with actress-patient Claire Niveau (a fierce Genevieve Bujold) creates fissures in the relational dynamic of the twins, which in turn creates fissures in their minds; things get to a point where freakish gynecological tools are created due to imagined mutation spreading. The later scenes of the film take on a haunting quality as Elliot and Beverly become untethered from each other and, thus, their reality. They do manage to find each other again, but this is a David Cronenberg joint; don’t expect a happy ending. Dead Ringers is a brooding rumination on the external realities we use to define ourselves, what happens when our duality is divided and the subconscious ways in which we plant the seeds of our own destruction. More, it’s about doubling our Jeremy Irons intake in one sitting, which is always a worthy cause. —Chad Betz


Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!

dont-let-the-riverbeast-get-you-poster.jpg Year: 2012
Director: Charles Roxburgh
Stars: Matt Farley, Sharon Scalzo, Kevin McGee, Elizabeth Peterson, Jim McHugh
Genre: Comedy, Horror
Rotten Tomatoes Score: NR
Rating: NR
Runtime: 99 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Charles Roxburgh and Matt Farley’s microbudget magnum opus—a Creature from the Black Lagoon-ish monster B-movie synthesized through a hyperliterate small-town farce, or something like that—Don’t let the Riverbeast Get You! wears the broad colors of its teensy cost, too often lumped in, like much of Farley and Roxburgh’s work, with the stuff of Tommy Wiseau, Frank D’Angelo, Neil Breen, guys who make good-bad movies because they’re incompetent, not because they have a specific aesthetic or tone they’re compelled to realize on screen. The world of Motern Media, instead, is never anything less than entirely, uniquely sincere, occupied by recurring non-actors more than willing to do their best with Farley and Roxburgh’s mouthfuls of dialogue, long sentences part koan and part practical assessment and all-imbued with a warmth often belied by its full-bodied dopiness. “Butternut squash is not to be shared,” a local friend tells super-tutor Neil (Farley), recently returned to his hometown after leaving in disgrace, the sole vocal witness of the fabled Riverbeast, a big wet monster no one in town’s willing to admit haunts the banks of their only recreational water source. Neil has a lot going on, actually: He’s a silent minority, an outsider because of his experience with the scaly reptilian danger stalking townsfolk, plus he’s taken on the cumbersome duty of tutoring athletic celebrity Frank Stone’s (Kevin McGee, magnificent) daughter, precocious teenager Allie (Sharon Scalzo), who happens to have her own scandal going on, what with the evidence she’s gathered against a professor given to surreptitiously ogling young ladies sunbathing down by the same river where too many people are otherwise mysteriously dying. All of this culminates in a punch-out pitting Neil and Frank against the terrible menace, and a closing line that only grows in brilliance the more one looks back on the film. As is the case with much of Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!: The more you revisit it, the more it reveals whatever it is, something so much more, so much unlike, whatever else you figured it was. —Dom Sinacola


His Girl Friday

his-girl-friday-poster.jpg Year: 1940
Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 92 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Special effects have become so sophisticated that many of us have probably forgotten how much pure amazement you can wreak with a great story and a script that doesn’t let up for one second. This amazing, dizzyingly paced screwball comedy by Howard Hawks stars Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and takes us back into two of the decade’s hallmark preoccupations: The “remarriage comedy” and the intrigue and obsessiveness of the newspaper world. The minute Russell’s Lindy Johnson stalks into the newspaper office run by her ex-husband Walter Burns (Grant), you know it’s to tell him she’s getting remarried and leaving journalism to raise a family, and you know that’s not how it’s going to end. No high-suspense mystery here. What puts you on the edge of your seat in this film is how you get there. Hilariously acted and expertly filmed, His Girl Friday derives much of its comedic impact from the incredibly clever and lightning-fast banter of the characters. Don’t even think about checking your phone while you’re watching this. In fact, try to blink as little as possible. —Amy Glynn


The Virgin Suicides

virgin-suicides-criterion-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1999
Director: Sofia Coppola
Stars: Kirsten Dunst, Kathleen Turner, James Woods, Giovanni Ribisi, Josh Hartnett
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 76%
Rating: R
Runtime: 97 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Set in the affluent Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, The Virgin Suicides is yet another Detroit-area, ’70s-era film obsessed with death. That its quintet of young protagonists—sisters played to unnervingly angelic perfection by Kirsten Dunst, A.J. Cook, Hanna Hall, Leslie Hayman and Chelse Swain—all commit suicide in the end is far from a surprise, of course: What is a surprise is that we never know why. In fact, the film is almost an oneiric procedural, in which the neighborhood boys who become infatuated with the strange daughters pick apart, piece by piece, detail by detail, the befuddling lives behind the objects of their affection. As such, The Virgin Suicides gracefully attempts to remember what it’s like to be a suburban teenager, comfortable in Middle America but uncomfortable with one’s body. Yet, the brilliance of Sofia Coppola’s direction (on even her first film) is in the way she laces such a seemingly innocent story with malice and melancholy, fixating on details that don’t matter or moments that have no consequence. That the narrator (Giovanni Ribisi) refers throughout to the decaying of the auto industry in Detroit makes the film as much a ghost story about Southwest Michigan as it is a tale of unrequited love: Try as hard as we might, we’ll probably never be able to trace the tragedy of Detroit back to its source. —Dom Sinacola


First Reformed

first-reformed-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Paul Schrader
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Michael Gaston, Philip Ettinger
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
Rating: R
Runtime: 108 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

What makes a man start fires? What if that person were a man of God? Paul Schrader, now 71, has perhaps spent his entire career as a filmmaker attempting to ask that question, to breach the impenetrable truth of whatever that question’s answer could be, beginning with Blue Collar, a story of auto workers and union members in Detroit compromising their values to survive in the shadow of forces too large and too immovable to compromise themselves. With First Reformed, Schrader’s 20th feature as director, that question absorbs the whole film—not through cries of nihilism, as in his previous, garbage Dog Eat Dog, but as a sustained act of faith: What must the devout do for a world God has abandoned? The question lingers wetly in Ethan Hawke’s eyes as he carries every frame of Schrader’s film. Playing Father Ernst Toller—a minister who in a former life had a wife and a son and a military career, an end brought to all three by that son’s death in Iraq—Hawke has spent the past 20 or so years sublimating the radical tendencies of his iconic slackerdom into a fiercely simmering anxiety, as if the purposelessness of his past malaise has left him stewing on how little he can or could do to change anything in this world. Not only does First Reformed directly butt heads with Dog Eat Dog, but it indulges melodrama without losing its calm. It works in obvious metaphors not for their own sakes, but as seamless extensions of theme. It’s a gorgeous film, mourning the impossibility of being alive as it celebrates that which binds us, a conscious-rattling, viscera-stirring piece of art. And ultimately, it’s a shocking film, powerful images gripping even more powerful fires within the bodies of those unequipped, as we all are, to put them out. —Dom Sinacola


Rosemary’s Baby

rosemarys-baby-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1968
Director: Roman Polanski
Stars: Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Maurice Evans, Sidney Blackmer, Ralph Bellamy
Genre: Horror
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Rating: R
Runtime: 136 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

The banality of evil isn’t a concept new to the horror genre, but in Roman Polanski’s troubled hands, that banality is an unadulterated expression of institutionalized horror, one so ingrained in our society it becomes practically organic. With Rosemary’s Baby, the body of young Rosemary (Mia Farrow) is the institution through which Satan’s malice gestates, a body over which everyone but Rosemary herself seems to have any control. At the mercy of her overbearing neighbors (played by a pitch-perfect Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), her Ur-Dudebro husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), and the doctor (Ralph Bellamy) recommended by her high society cadre of new friends, Rosemary is treated as if she’s the last person who knows what’s best for her and her fetus—a position she accepts as a matter of fact. She’s only a woman, a homemaker at that, so such is her lot. The worse she feels and the more fraught her pregnancy becomes—as well as the recurring flashes of a ghastly dream she can’t quite shake in which a ManBearPig mounts her, its glowing yellow eyes the talismans of her trauma—the clearer Rosemary begins to suspect she’s an unwilling pawn in something cosmically insidious. She is, is the absurd truth: She is the mother of Satan’s offspring, the victim of a coven’s will to worship their Dark Lord much more fruitfully. More than the director’s audacious Hollywood debut, not to mention the omen of what New Hollywood would be willing to do to tear down tradition, Rosemary’s Baby is a landmark horror film because of how ordinary, how easy, it is for everyone else in Rosemary’s life to crush a woman’s spirit and take her life. The baby has “his father’s eyes” it’s said; what of the mother’s does he have? —Dom Sinacola


The Silence of the Lambs

Silence-Lambs-Criterion.jpg Year: 1991
Director: Jonathan Demme
Stars: Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Scott Glenn, Ted Levine
Genre: Horror, Thriller, Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Rating: R
Runtime: 118 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

The camera hugs her face, maybe trying to protect her though she needs no protection, and maybe just trying to see into her, to see what she sees, to understand why seeing what she sees is so important. Not even 30, Jodie Foster looks so much younger, surrounded in The Silence of the Lambs by men who tower over her, staring at her, flummoxed by her, perhaps wanting to protect her too, but more likely, more ironically, intimidated by a world that would allow such a fragile creature to wander the domain of monsters. As Clarice Starling, FBI agent-in-training, Foster is an innocent who’s seen more than any of us could ever imagine, a warrior who seems unsure of her prowess. That Jonathan Demme—a director who came up under the tutelage of Roger Corman, able to adopt then immediately shed genres at whim—corners Starling within the confines of a “Woman in Peril,” only to watch her shrug off every label thrown at her, is a testament to The Silence of the Lambs as feminist, not because it so thoroughly inhabits a female point of view, but because its violence and fear is the stuff of masculine toxicity. Demme’s film is only the second to adapt Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lector novels to the screen, but it’s the first to draw undeniable lines between the way men see Clarice Starling and the way that serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) projects his neuroses onto his victims. Demme (and Harris) links seeing to transformation to one’s need to consume, all pursued through a gendered lens, represented by the seemingly omniscient perspective of Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins), a borderline asexual cannibal who literally eats those over whom he holds court. Buffalo Bill is a monster, and so is Lector, but the difference is that Lector does not attempt to possess Clarice Starling, though he sees her, because he is in control of that which he consumes. Buffalo Bill isn’t; as a man he believes that by consuming femininity he can become it, too stupid and too self-absorbed to realize that consumption is deletion, that wanting to protect a woman is only a matter of admitting that the World of Men is a weak and evil failure of the very ideals it strives to preserve. —Dom Sinacola


Knives Out

knives-out-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Rian Johnson
Stars: Ana de Armas, Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Mystery
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 130 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Knives Out is the type of movie that’s not so much a dying breed as one that just occurs uncommonly “in the wild.” Hollywood seems to release a new take on the classic (i.e., Agatha Christie-imprinted) murder mystery “who dunnit”—where an eccentrically mannered detective attempts to figure out who amongst a roomful of suspects has committed murder most foul—every five-to-10 years. For most viewers, the pleasures of such movies go beyond trying to figure out the killer before the detective does—there’s also typically a star-studded cast chewing up the scenery. Beyond dependable Christie fare like Death on the Nile (1978) and Murder on the Orient Express (2017), there’s Clue (1985), Gosford Park (2001) and now Rian Johnson’s Knives Out. Johnson’s latest starts out in classic who-dunnit fashion—acclaimed mystery writer Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead by apparent suicide the night after gathering his family together and delivering a series of unpopular messages. Enter the local police (led by Lakeith Stansfield’s Det. Lt. Elliott) and eccentrically mannered (there we go!) private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Suspects are interrogated. Secrets are revealed. Then, right as the viewer is gearing up to lay some Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot/Encyclopedia Brown-level discernment on all this, Johnson reveals what happened to the elder Thrombey. This flips the entire experience for the viewer, as they go from trying to figure out what happened to wondering if the truth will be discovered. Much as he did with Dashiell Hammett-style noir in his debut, Brick, Johnson shows both a reverence for and a willingness to tinker with the tropes and formula underpinning his story. It’s all delightful to watch. If, ultimately, Knives Out accomplishes what it sets out to do—which might sound like faint or even damning praise with another film or in another genre—here it’s meant as the sincerest of plaudits. —Michael Burgin


Election

Election285x400.jpg Year: 1999
Director: Alexander Payne
Stars: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Rating: R
Runtime: 102 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Tom Perrotta writes novels that strip the veneer from polite and “civilized” mid-American suburban life to expose it as the Starbucks-ian jungle that it is: The most reptilian impulses of human nature can strike at any time to dismantle the weak ones in the pack, or to at least flirt with pure narcissistic and hedonistic behavior. In fact, two great films based on his work outline this thematic connection—in Todd Field’s Little Children, the sexual indiscretions of small town characters are narrated like an old school National Geographic documentary, and in Alexander Payne’s Election, the soundtrack blares with a screeching, angry tribal chant whenever a character feels slighted, preparing for an attack to socially destroy an enemy. Perrotta and Payne’s narrative covers a rift between a high school teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who isn’t self-aware enough to realize how much of a selfish prick he really is, and a student, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), the embodiment of blind and ruthless ambition, during the election to appoint the new student body president. Underneath this simple story rides a precise and nimble exploration about the lengths anyone might go to on the road to success to protect their fragile ego while stabbing many backs. Witherspoon’s now-iconic take on Tracy Flick is the embodiment of that person we’ve all encountered who will do and say literally anything to get ahead in life. However, Broderick’s seemingly caring and guiding teacher also succumbs to his own basest desires. Which one perishes, and which one comes out on top depends not on any preconceived cosmic hierarchy of good morals (or ethics—what’s the difference?), but on who can be the shrewdest and cleverest animal in the pack. —Oktay Ege Kozak


Bloodsport

bloodsport-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1988
Director: Newt Arnold
Stars: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Leah Ayres, Donald Gibb
Genre: Action & Adventure, Martial Arts
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 40%
Rating: R
Runtime: 92 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

There are tomes to be written and classes to be taught on the perplexing existence of Bloodsport—purportedly our current President’s favorite movie, if one were to fast-forward through the talking parts, directed by an adult man named Newt—but perhaps the film is best summarized in one moment: the infamous Scream. Because in these 40 seconds or so, the heart and soul of Bloodsport is bared, with little concern for taste, or purpose, or respect for the physically binding laws of reality—in this moment is a burgeoning movie star channeling his best attributes (astounding muscles; years of suppressed rage; the juxtaposition of grace and violence that is his well-oiled and cleanly shaven corporeal form) to make a go at real-live Hollywood acting. Although Bloodsport is the movie that announced Jean-Claude Van Damme and his impenetrable accent to the world—as well as serving as the crucible for (seriously) every single plot of every Van Damme movie to come—it’s also a defining film of the decade, positioning martial arts as certifiable blockbuster action cinema. Schwarzenegger and Stallone? These were beefy mooks that could believably be action stars. Van Damme set the bar higher: His body became a better and bloodier weapon than any hand-cannon that previous mumbling, ’80s box-office draws could ever wield. —Dom Sinacola


Inside Llewyn Davis

inside-llewyn-davis-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2013
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Stars: Oscar Isaac, John Goodman, Carey Mulligan, Adam Driver, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%
Rating: R
Runtime: 105 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is not a good man; he tells his nephew as much, as if he’s long ago resigned himself to that reality. How long ago isn’t clear—time, when you’re crashing from couch to couch and so relentless in your artistic idealism that your problems become everyone else’s, is malleable. Has a tendency to fall back on itself, to rewind and re-begin. In 1961, Llewyn is a staple in New York’s emerging folk scene, having scored some minor attention for an album he recorded with a former partner, that partner now a success-shaped hole in Lewyn’s life. His solo album isn’t doing so well—hasn’t even been officially released by a label—though Llewyn knows he’s good, perhaps even great, despising any other artist (played by the likes of Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver and Carey Mulligan) not calibrated to his particular standards for what constitutes ethical, incisive music-making. We’re convinced that he’s good too, given long scenes of Isaac fully performing often heart-wrenching songs, Bruno Delbonnel’s camera glimpsing these forgotten images through a soft, muted haze, somehow both romanticizing and judging our memories of what that part of history could have been. Llewyn’s talent hardly matters, though; he’s lost a part of himself that could connect with an audience. If Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen brothers’ rumination on what it would mean for their partnership to end, it’s a deeply personal confession of vulnerability and fear. If the film is a love letter to a mythologized era that may have never existed, then it is about whether or not Llewyn actually is a good man, whether or not what he represented actually means anything—whether or not he will be remembered as anything more than a Llewyn-shaped hole in the lives of all the people he let down. —Dom Sinacola


The Handmaiden

handmaiden-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Park Chan-wook
Stars: Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Thriller
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 145 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

There are few filmmakers on Earth capable of crafting the experience of movies like The Handmaiden so exquisitely while maintaining both plot inertia and a sense of fun. (Yes, it’s true: Park has made a genuinely fun, and often surprisingly, bleakly funny, picture.) The film begins somberly enough, settling on a tearful farewell scene as Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) is carted off to the manor of the reclusive and exorbitantly rich aristocrat Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), where she will act as servant to his niece, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). But Sook-hee isn’t a maid: She’s a pickpocket working on behalf of Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), a conman scheming to get his mitts on Hideko’s assets. (That’s not a euphemism. He only wants her for her money.) The reveal of Sook-hee’s true intentions is just the first of many on The Handmaiden’s narrative itinerary. Park has designed the film as a puzzle box where each step taken to find the solution answers one question while posing new ones at the same time. But you’re here to read about the sex, aren’t you? It’s in the sex scenes between the two Kims that Park shows the kind of filmmaker he really is. The sex is sexy, the scenes steamy, but in each we find a tenderness that invites us to read them as romance rather than as pornography. We’re not conditioned to look for humanity in pantomimes of a sexually explicit nature, but that’s exactly when The Handmaiden is at its most human. There’s something comforting in that, and in Park’s framing of deviance as embodied by the film’s masculine component. We don’t really need him to spell that out for us, but the message is welcome all the same. —Andy Crump


Detour

detour-criterion.jpg Year: 1945
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Stars: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Mystery & Suspense
Rotten Tomatoes Score: NR
Rating: NR
Runtime: 68 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

A Poverty Row staple with an unknown cast peering into the post-war dark night of the soul, Detour has come to embody the best film noir has to offer—namely, that budget and schedule concerns indirectly enriched the artistic product, paring down a weightier script and even more bloated source novel into a precise, exquisitely sharp bit of storytelling economy. Trapped within the sweaty mind of always-broke jazz pianist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) as he heads West from New York to settle down with his girlfriend (Claudia Drake), a symbol of stable life for Roberts who absconded with his heart to try to “make it” in Hollywood, we’re stuck with only the unlucky guy’s version of events throughout his increasingly desperate trip. After all, his hitchhiking journey seems doomed to fail from the start, but it grows damn near bleak with the accidental cadaver-ing of a gregarious Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald) following a whirlwind buddy meet-cute, and then completely hopeless with the introduction of Vera (Ann Savage), an iconic femme fatale who doesn’t have to try hard to ensnare Roberts, by that point so far out of his league he’s got his pants pulled up well past his nipples. As much an efficient encapsulation of its genre as it is a noir drowning entirely within its own hell-bent nightmare, Detour is most impressive for how gracefully Ulmer can get the most out of so little. —Dom Sinacola


Aguirre, the Wrath of God

aquirre-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1972
Director: Werner Herzog
Stars: Klaus Kinski, Elena Rojo, Ruy Guerra, Del Negro
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Action & Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Rating: R
Runtime: 90 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

The Rosetta Stone to understanding the relationship between director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski is contained within watching the way Herzog sees Kinski as Aguirre, the Conquistador circa 1560 who, through the sheer power of his belligerence, led a small army of Spaniards to their certain doom. In Kinski’s disturbing, hobbled presence, Aguirre is delusion manifest, his need to find the lost City of Gold while trekking through the unforgiving rain forests of Peru so corrupt and surreal it appears to be crippling his body from the inside out, crawling free from his heart and escaping his bug-eyes. Herzog exploits that delusion when he casts Kinski—known IRL for his self-aggrandizing optics and unbelievable cruelty—and in Aguirre, the Wrath of God is no purer sense of just how wholly Herzog knows Kinski’s true nature, letting it seep into—infect—the reality of the film itself: “Based on a true story” wasn’t so debased a cinematic term until Fargo took up the challenge decades later. Which is pretty much how Herzog treats true stories anyway—his documentary subjects he’s known to openly manipulate, and even Paul Cronin’s Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed book, a series of conversations amounting to a career retrospective, Cronin prologues with a lengthy explanation for how involved Herzog was in editing and rewriting his own interviews. What’s left in lieu of fealty to the story of Gonzalo Pizzaro’s ill-fated expedition is something so much more visceral: A reenactment of the story’s—and therefore History’s—pain, absurdity and grand illusion. —Dom Sinacola


Annihilation

annihilation-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Alex Garland
Stars: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson
Genre: Horror, Thriller, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 88%
Rating: R
Runtime: 120 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Annihilation is a movie that’s impossible to shake. Like the characters who find themselves both exploring the world of the film and inexplicably trapped by it, you’ll find yourself questioning yourself throughout, wondering whether what you’re watching can possibly be real, whether maybe you’re going a little insane yourself. The film is a near-impossible bank shot by Ex Machina filmmaker Alex Garland, a would-be science fiction actioner that slowly reveals itself to be a mindfuck in just about every possible way, a film that wants you to invest in its universe yet never gives you any terra firma on which to orient yourself, a film hoping you’re as confused and terrified as the characters you’re watching, these characters played by big stars (Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh) backed by a big movie studio, a film that becomes more confusing and disorienting as it goes along. In this, it is unquestionably successful. Garland mesmerizes with his visuals, but he wants you to be off-balance; like the alien (I think?) of his movie, Garland is not a malevolent presence, but simply an observer of this world, one who follows it to every possible permutation, logical or otherwise. It’s difficult to explain Annihilation, which is a large reason for its being. Loss, and regret, and the sensation that the world is constantly crumbling and rearranging all around you every possible second: The world of Annihilation feels familiar, but only at first. Reality is fluid, and ungraspable. A little like our current reality in that way. —Will Leitch


The Act of Killing

act-of-killing.jpg Year: 2012
Director: Joshua Oppenheimer
Genre: Documentary
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 116 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing focuses on one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century, speaking to some members of the Indonesian death squads who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women in 1965 and ’66. These people don’t live in the shadows, though—instead they’re treated like royalty in their native land, celebrated as heroes who helped “save” Indonesia from communism. The film is so shocking and depressing that its subjects’ utter disconnection from morality would almost be funny if it wasn’t so frightening. Oppenheimer amplifies those conflicting reactions further by introducing a daring gambit: In the process of interviewing these butchers—who brag about raping and killing their victims (including the occasional beheading)—the director asked if they would be interested in re-creating their murders through fictionalized, filmed scenes. The men—most notably a gentleman named Anwar Congo, who was one of the death squad leaders—leapt at the chance. What follows is a literally nauseous glimpse into the minds of men who have spent decades mentally escaping the inescapable. —Tim Grierson


The Fits

the-fits.jpg Year: 2016
Director: Anna Rose Holmer
Stars: Royalty Hightower, Da’Sean Minor
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 72 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

It’s not difficult to imagine a different cut of Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits that hews closer to the arc of a traditional sports story. Hers has the makings of a familiar one, about a misfit who wants more than anything to compete—but unlike most stories of inspirational audacity, The Fits is as much about discomfort as the catharsis that comes with achievement. In it, Toni (Royalty Hightower) is an 11-year-old who has more experience with stereotypically male pursuits like lifting weights and punching speed bags than the usual interests of a pre-teen girl. She spends nearly all of her time at the Lincoln Recreation Center alongside her boxer brother, Jermaine (Da’Sean Minor), pushing her body to the limit. While she shows a remarkable aptitude for the ascetical devotion required for boxing, she still dreams about competing on the dance team, “The Lincoln Lionesses.”

Framed with a rigid sense of space by cinematographer Paul Yee, and backed by the groaning score from veteran composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, The Fits is infused with such dread that one can’t help but imagine that characters’ muscles and bones could break or shatter at any moment. The film’s most explicit example of which may be Toni pulling off a temporary tattoo, but The Fits is firmly a story of metaphysical body horror, an allegory about our greatest fears of physical fragility shot brilliantly through a feminist lens. With that, the film manages to reinvent the sports story as something both brainy and physically pure. —Michael Snydel


High Life

high-life-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Claire Denis
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth, André Benjamin
Genre: Drama, Horror, Science Fiction & Fantasy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 82%
Rating: R
Runtime: 110 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

High Life begins with a moment of intense vulnerability, followed immediately by a moment of immense strength. First we glimpse a garden, verdant and welcoming, before we’re ushered to a sterile room. There we realize there’s a baby alone while Monte (Robert Pattinson), her father maybe, consoles her, talking through a headset mounted within his space helmet. “Da da da,” he explains through the intercom; the baby starts to lose her shit because he’s not really there, he’s perched outside, on the surface of their basic Lego-piece of a spaceship, just barely gripped on the edge of darkness. They’re in space, one supposes, surrounded by dark, oppressive nothingness, and he can’t reach her. They’re alone. Next, Monte empties their cryogenic storage locker of all the dead bodies of his once-fellow crew members, lifting their heavy limbs and torsos into space suits, not because it matters, but maybe just because it’s something to do to pass the time, as much a sign of respect as it is an emotional test of will. Monte looks healthy and capable, like he can withstand all that loneliness, like he and his daughter might actually make it out of this OK, whatever this is. High Life lives inside that juxtaposition, displaying tenderness as graphically as violence and anger and incomprehensible fear, mining all that blackness surrounding its characters for as much terror as writer-director Claire Denis can afford without getting obvious about it. Pattinson, flattened and lithe, plays Monte remarkably, coiled within himself to the point that he finishes every word deep in his throat, his sentences sometimes total gibberish. He doesn’t allow much to escape his face, but behind his eyes beams something scary, as if he could suddenly, and probably will, crack. He says as much to Willow, his kid, whispering to her while she sleeps that he could easily kill them both, never wanting to hurt her but still polluting her dreams. He can’t help it, and neither can Denis, who, on her 14th film (first in English), can make an audience believe, like few other directors, that anything can happen. Madness erupts from silence and sleep, bodily fluids dripping all over and splattering throughout and saturating the psyches of these criminal blue collar astronauts, the overwhelming stickiness of the film emphasizing just how intimately close Denis wants us to feel to these odd, sick fleshbags hurtling toward the edge of consciousness. —Dom Sinacola


Johnny Guitar

johnny-guitar.jpg Year: 1954
Director: Nicholas Ray
Stars: Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, Sterling Hayden, Scott Brady
Genre: Western
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 110 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Johnny Guitar is a film that barely hangs onto its genre trappings—and is one of the strangest and rarest of fifties Westerns. Nicholas Ray specialized in borderline-hysterical, hyper-magnified psychological drama, regardless of the setting. Here, he pits tough saloon keeper Vienna (a hard-faced Joan Crawford) against wrathful rival Mercedes McCambridge. Sterling Hayden sidles in as Vienna’s love interest and the catalyst for the witch hunt, but he’s hardly the driving force of the film. That showdown belongs to the women of Johnny Guitar—and the fearsome, small-minded community that surrounds them. —Christina Newland


Mission: Impossible – Fallout

mission-impossible-fallout-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Stars: Tom Cruise, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Henry Cavill, Angela Bassett, Alec Baldwin, Sean Harris, Michelle Monaghan
Genre: Action & Adventure, Mystery & Suspense
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 147 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

At some point midway through Mission: Impossible – Fallout—the sixth entry in the franchise and director Christopher McQuarrie’s unprecedented second go at helming one of these beasts—CIA brute Austin Walker (Henry Cavill) asks his superior, CIA Director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett), how many times she thinks Übermensch Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) will put up with his country screwing him over before he snaps. Walker’s question is rhetorical, intended to convince Sloane that Hunt is actually John Lark, the alias of a shadowy conspirator planning to buy stolen plutonium whom he and Hunt also happen to be chasing, but the question is better put before Cruise, the film’s bright, shining star. It’s a question that hangs over this dependably mind-blowing action flick more obviously than any installment to come before: How long can 56-year-old Cruise keep doing this before he, truly and irrevocably, snaps? Fallout never offers an answer, most likely because Cruise won’t have one until his body just completely gives out, answering for him by default. Fallout shows no real signs of that happening any time soon. What it does show is a kind of blockbuster intuition for what makes our enormous action brands—from Fast and the Furious to the MCU—thrive, behind only Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol as the best of the now 22-year endeavor. Where Bird leaned into the franchise as a literalization of its title, redefining the series by balancing the absurdity of what Cruise was impossibly doing (the Burj Khalifa scene is one of the greatest action sequences ever) with the awe of bearing witness to what a human person could accomplish if devoid of all Thetans, McQuarrie considers the two pretty much the same thing. The only reaction worthy of such absurdity is awe—and the only American tentpole films worth our awe anymore are those deemed Mission: Impossible. It’s all so goddamned beautiful. I love these movies. —Dom Sinacola


You Were Never Really Here

never-really-here-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman, Judith Roberts, Alex Manette, Alessandro Nivola
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%
Rating: R
Runtime: 89 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Lynne Ramsay has a reputation for being uncompromising. In industry patois, that means she has a reputation for being “difficult.” Frankly, the word that best describes her is “unrelenting.” Filmmakers as in charge of their aesthetic as Ramsay are rare. Rarer still are filmmakers who wield so much control without leaving a trace of ego on the screen. If you’ve seen any of the three films she made between 1999 and 2011 (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin), then you’ve seen her dogged loyalty to her vision in action, whether that vision is haunting, horrific or just plain bizarre. She’s as forceful as she is delicate. Her fourth film, You Were Never Really Here—haunting, horrific and bizarre all at once—is arguably her masterpiece, a film that treads the line delineating violence from tenderness in her body of work. Calling it a revenge movie doesn’t do it justice. It’s more like a sustained scream. You Were Never Really Here’s title is constructed of layers, the first outlining the composure of her protagonist, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix, acting behind a beard that’d make the Robertson clan jealous), a military veteran and former federal agent as blistering in his savagery as in his self-regard. Joe lives his life flitting between past and present, hallucination and reality. Even when he physically occupies a space, he’s confined in his head, reliving horrors encountered in combat, in the field and in his childhood on a non-stop, simultaneous loop. Each of her previous movies captures human collapse in slow motion. You Were Never Really Here is a breakdown shot in hyperdrive, lean, economic, utterly ruthless and made with fiery craftsmanship. Let this be the language we use to characterize her reputation as one of the best filmmakers working today. —Andy Crump


Sunset Boulevard

sunset-boulevard.jpg Year: 1950
Director: Billy Wilder
Stars: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Rating: G
Runtime:111 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Billy Wilder’s meta noir is a doozy, an unfailingly cynical critique of showbiz and a portrait of postwar alienation projected on the microcosm of Hollywood. It’s also wickedly funny in Sahara dry fashion, from the opening words of our dead narrator—floating facedown in his killer’s swimming pool—to Norma Desmond’s concluding descent down her staircase, and the rabbit hole. Gloria Swanson is magnificent and sad as Ms. Desmond, a fading beauty of the silent screen who manipulates broke, hackish screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) into becoming her boy toy. Theirs is a fated relationship from the get-go, she of the wordless era, he dependent on them for his very livelihood. They’re on the outs with their industry, and each other, yet coexist out of desperation. Wilder, who co-wrote with Charles Brackett and D. M. Marshman Jr., layered the script with in-joke upon self-referential wink, perhaps the least of which is Desmond’s passion project, about that OG of femme fatales, Salome. There’s a parade of Hollywood cameos, namechecks, and behind-the-scenes instances of “art imitating life” (and vice versa); for example, Erich von Stroheim, who portrays Desmond’s former director/first husband-turned-still lovestruck butler Max, directed Swanson in 1929’s Queen Kelly (excerpted here) before she as the film’s producer fired him, much like her Sunset Blvd. character discards his. Many of these nods were in less-than-good fun, so it’s no shock that Sunset Boulevard met with local disdain, yet Wilder doesn’t flinch. Norma, Joe, Max … they’re all unwanted souls who, try as they might to live in the past, have succumbed to the present—in Joe’s case, most finally. The smoke and mirrors of Tinseltown, of life, don’t do the job anymore (though cinematographer John Seitz, who also lensed Double Indemnity, most certainly did, sprinkling dust into the air for the lights to catch). Desmond may be a seductress past her sell-by date, but Hollywood is the ultimate femme fatale, who chews suckers up and spits them out. Sunset Boulevard gives L.A. its close-up, alright. —Amanda Schurr


Park Row

park-row-movie-poster copy.jpg Year: 1952
Director: Samuel Fuller
Stars: Gene Evans, Mary Welch, Bela Kovacs, George O’Hanlon, Herbert Heyes, Forrest Taylor
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 83 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

A love letter to journalism as an ideal of physical, blue collar, all-American labor—a eulogy to a time when “the news” was a violent calling, something to a fight and maybe even die for—Samuel Fuller’s Park Row unabashedly begins like a hagiography for Johannes Gutenberg and Benjamin Franklin, the two patron saints whose statues lord over the titular sacred street in Manhattan. The story of two feuding newspaper magnates, one a rich sophisticate (Bela Kovacs) who inherited the biggest newspaper in town from her dad and one a savvy newspaperman through and through (fired from his rival’s paper for loving the truth just too damn much), Fuller’s film is less a procedural dignifying the meticulous craft of reporting and more a take akin to Werner Herzog’s approach to documentaries: It’s OK to manipulate the facts just as long as they serve something greater. Whatever that may be, whatever “greater” good to which Fuller feels his grease-stained characters aspire, Fuller finds absolution in the grace of his compositions, favoring long takes of people getting dirty—pulling all-nighters and fighting and fraternizing with riff-raff—while making myths of his unrelenting heroes. —Dom Sinacola


American Gigolo

american-gigolo-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1980
Director: Paul Schrader
Stars: Richard Gere, Bill Duke, Lauren Hutton, Hector Elizondo
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 68%
Rating: R
Runtime: 116 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

In 1980’s American Gigolo, Richard Gere’s high-priced escort Julian knows what he’s good at, and proud of it, too. His clients are predominantly older women, women whose husbands, in his understanding, have forgotten them, or whose desires and need for pleasure have been discarded. His ability to satisfy them—he calls this “a challenge” he is up to—gives him fulfillment, the implication of meaning in his life. That life, otherwise, is organized; there is a routine to his actions. His home is modern, defined by the intentional affectation of someone putting on appearances. That’s what he does for a living: He puts on appearances. Julian’s image aspires to be the most charming and eligible man, even when he’s playing naïve, as he does with one client. He feigns stupidity, though when he does so as a simple chauffeur, he exudes the kind of sex appeal that’s only natural because it’s so practiced. He works out, sculpts himself. When he places his clothes on the bed (they’re Armani), he crafts the best version of himself to sell to others. Julian has standards when it comes to tricks: no kink, no fag stuff. But those standards, and the secrets he’s kept so well for the women that have employed him, fall apart when he becomes embroiled in a murder case, the victim being one of his tricks. As he loses all sense of himself and the control he once thought he had over his world, the meticulously created artifice of his life dissolves rapidly. Though Julian is (ostensibly) heterosexual, American Gigolo is a queer film by virtue of its form. Schrader imbues the film with queer aesthetics, its Californian, neon-painted fakeness, its kitschy set design (the loudest furniture juxtaposed against the most austere symmetry) and its little dose of Blondie, “Call Me” blaring at the beginning of the film. One of his pimps, Leon (Bill Duke) is gay and black, and the affair he carries on with Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton), the wife of a well-known politician, feels like a stiff fantasy. Masculinity is a prison, the film almost seems to suggest, as the masculine self Jules so dutifully crafted begins to sour and fall apart. His world sinks, and he’s left with almost no one. The men in Paul Schrader’s films are undone by the feeble attempts to preserve restrictive ideals of masculinity: One event sets off a chain reaction, a domino effect for the undoing of the self. The curated acts, the sculpting, that Julian commits to are flimsy, revealing that, once one peels back each layer of “manhood,” inside is something vacant, an abyss of loneliness and anxiety. —Kyle Turner


The Long Goodbye

Year: 1973
Director: Robert Altman
Stars: Elliott Gould, Sterling Hayden, Nina Van Pallandt, Henry Gibson, Mark Rydell
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%
Rating: R
Runtime: 112 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

It’s muggy in L.A. and Philip Marlowe (Elliott Gould) is shrouded in an opaque suit, a getup whose fabric one assumes barely breathes, especially with so much cigarette smoke clogging up its woolly pores. He’s a deeply square person—though it’s the early ’70s, he debatably makes smoking look cool, and though he lives in an apartment complex with a giggly group of young coeds given to shirtless shenanigans and still sweating off the hangover of Free Love, he’s a barely noticed figure. He’s a loose thread on the fallow fringes of a sophisticated city, a grown man with nothing better to do on a clear, late night than feed his cat … if he can even find it. Marlowe is a man of another time, “a born loser” as even one of his closest friends calls him. And the world into which Altman abandons him isn’t one of dark alleyways or the damp, wan glow of streetlamps—chiaroscuro be damned—it’s the bright dawn of something new and something disconcertingly shiny in America. The Long Goodbye is Altman’s stab at and devastation of film noir, pitting its beleaguered protagonist not against those stuffy, old, deeply ingrained mechanisms of institutionalized evil, but against a much younger brand of nihilism. In Altman’s noir-ish wasteland, there is nothing lurking beneath the surface—it’s all surface—and our only moral compass is a chain-smoking, asexual dweeb who isn’t so much righteous as he is just plain ignored. —Dom Sinacola


The Conversation

TheConversation.jpg Year: 1974
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Stars: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Harrison Ford, Allen Garfield, Frederic Forrest, Cindy Williams
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 113 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

The really incredible fact about this film is that Coppola made it as a side project between Godfather movies. Starring Gene Hackman, The Conversation is the story of a surveillance technician coming face to face with the implications of his job, and the paranoia of being watched at every moment. It was nominated for Best Picture in 1974, an award that went to The Godfather, Part II. It’s one of the rare times in film history when a director has lost to himself. —Shane Ryan


Zama

zama-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Lucrecia Martel
Stars: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín, Daniel Veronese
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 115 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Early in Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, her dreamy intent and languid images begin to nestle into place. First we witness Spanish corregidor (“mayor”) Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho, whose eyes bear lifetimes of disappointment and resignation) on the shore of a nondescript river, in charge of a desolate Spanish colonial outpost in the middle of nowhere South America, though he seems to be more inhabiting it than litigating its quotidian. Catching a group of native women bathing, he steals a glance but is immediately found out, chased from the beach. Slapping one of the women to assert his dominance, Zama’s violent reaction feels preposterous, the response of a person with no control over himself, or his lot in life. This land rejects this sad man.

Director Lucrecia Martel and cinematographer Rui Poças (whose worked with Miguel Gomes and, recently, with João Pedro Rodrigues on the exquisitely pretty The Ornithologist) dedicate nearly every frame to Zama’s melancholy maundering, though rarely allowing him the dignity to ever be the most interesting figure in any particular shot, that is, when they aren’t up close, searching his lined mug for something representing courage or assertiveness. Stranded in a thankless government job, not so much forgotten by the system as just avoided, Zama is a colonist renounced by both the colonized and colonizers. Zama is literally post-colonial: Colonists negate Diego de Zama’s colonialism by negating him, an equation Martel and Poças externalize by photographing with foreboding beauty the jungle around the pathetic man, reducing him to a meaningless, replaceable figure amidst effortlessly mighty landscapes. “Do you want to live?” Zama’s asked at the end of the film. He doesn’t respond. With her third film, Lucrecia Martel wonders, in wide swathes of unmitigated wilderness and weird, inexplicable poetry, just how far one’s wants can go. Bewitching and masterfully rendered, Zama is an elegant, ravishing, often delightfully strange achievement. It is reportedly the result of an interminable production process, of a difficult and substantial edit, of a novel that resists adaptation. It wants little more than to reach out in all directions, to peer into the void, knowing deep down that the void can’t be bothered to peer back. —Dom Sinacola


A Field in England

a-field-in-england-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2013
Director: Ben Wheatley
Stars: Reece Shearsmith, Julian Barratt, Richard Glover
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Horror
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 86%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 90 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

In the 17th century, amidst the buffered explosions and death rattles of the English Civil War—that always seems just over the ridge—three men meet a fourth who feeds them psychotropic mushrooms and then herds them to a fifth, who forces them to search for buried treasure in the middle of A Field in England. Co-written with partner Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley’s fourth film fails the Bechdel Test so tremendously it practically suffers Ego Death, obliterating all barriers—physical and temporal and whatever else—to be as much about the relentlessly stupid nature of masculine power dynamics as it is about the experience of losing oneself within the sensation of total loss. In an otherwise incoherent tale of men abusing men, Wheatley strips back elemental layer after layer, revealing emptiness within emptiness. Story, logic, none of it seems to matter, nothing matters, everything is mutable and transigent and malcontent—except for a hair of sympathy threaded through everything, the sense that were all of these men to give up on each other entirely, whatever’s going on would spin out beyond all recognition. And so, a man called Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) offers to inspect the genital warts (which we get to inspect too!) of his new vagabond friend Trower (Julian Barratt), out of the kindness of Whitehead’s heart, while a man called Friend (Richard Glover), upon his death, confesses his love for his wife’s sister, describing the manner in which they had sex to his recently close companions with unexpected, moving intimacy. Skirting the madness, Blanck Mass’s score sweeps from baroque ditties to vast and sparkling soundscapes, especially arresting for how strangely Wheatley uses them, willing to show the characters in his film how easily, how meaninglessly, he can bend the world around them to his pointless will. A man on a leash running out of a tent in slow-motion? Is that a Waiting for Godot reference? Mesmerized for mesmerization’s sake, one weeps at the beauty. —Dom Sinacola


The Assassin

assassin-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2015
Director: Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Stars: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Fang-yi Sheu
Genre: Drama, Action & Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 80%
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 120 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin is a gorgeous creation, a martial arts movie that willfully withholds and subverts the primary pleasures of the genre to get at something more beautiful, mysterious and timeless. One doesn’t watch The Assassin so much as fall under its sway. The Taiwanese director’s first film since 2007’s Flight of the Red Balloon, The Assassin takes us back to ninth-century China as the Tang dynasty is beginning to unravel. Shu Qi plays Nie Yinniang, whom (we learn in an opening crawl) was abducted by a nun when she was only 10 and trained in martial arts. Years later, Nie has been ordered to return to her homeland to assassinate Tian (Chang Chen), a warlord to whom she had been promised in marriage as a child. The Assassin’s story is somewhat simplistic but, as depicted by Hou, also incredibly complicated, with scenes of throne-room intrigue littering the film’s first half. If the plot machinations are hard to follow, frequent Hou cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing makes it all look arresting. With scenes often taking place indoors at night, The Assassin can feel almost dreamlike, an impression heightened by the fact that the filmmaker often places in between his camera and the actors thin, billowing curtains, which create the sensation that we’re watching half-remembered incidents or eavesdropping on top-secret meetings. The martial arts film has similarities to the Western, and The Assassin could be seen in some ways as Hou’s version of an Unforgiven, in which narrative tenets and character types are in service to a higher purpose, a more audacious form of art. The violence isn’t the point of The Assassin: The words and action that lead to violence are. Consequently, The Assassin strips away any notion of escapism: Fight scenes are just another form of politics in Hou’s movie. The film is so immaculately constructed—Hou has worked on The Assassin for years—that it’s all of a piece, a diamond that inspires awe and gasps. —Tim Grierson


The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

36th-chamber-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1978
Director: Lau Kar-leung
Stars: Gordon Liu, Lo Lieh, Norman Chu, Lau Kar-wing
Genre: Martial Arts, Action & Adventure
Rotten Tomatoes Score: NR
Rating: R
Runtime: 109 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

This is why any kung fu fan will always love Gordon Liu. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is as classic as it gets: the definitive Shaolin movie, without a doubt, and the source of Liu’s nickname, “Master Killer.” He plays San Te, a young student wounded when his school is culled by the Manchu government, so he flees to the refuge of the Shaolin temple. After toiling as a laborer, he finally earns the right to learn kung fu, which begins the film’s famous training sequences. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is the rare film where those training sequences actually outshine its traditional fights, because they’re just so beautiful, fluid and inventive. In each of the 36 chambers, San Te must toil to discipline his body, mind, reflexes and will. They make up the whole center of the film, and are unforgettable, bearing an iconic gravitas, imbuing kung fu with a great dignity. Because true kung fu can only be attained through the greatest of sacrifice. —Jim Vorel


Blood and Black Lace

blood and black lace poster (Custom).jpg Year: 1964
Director: Mario Bava
Stars: Cameron Mitchell, Eva Bartok, Thomas Reiner
Genre: Horror
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 86%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 90 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Blood and Black Lace plays like a missing link between Psycho or Peeping Tom and the classic “body count” slashers of the early 1980s, with a significantly more misanthropic attitude reveling in its on-screen violence. Perhaps the single most influential giallo film ever made, it codified some of the early tropes of a nascent film genre, innovated a few new ones of its own and did so with a sumptuous visual aesthetic that proved difficult for any of its imitators to match. In a career full of classics, it is perhaps Bava’s prettiest and most drum-tight film. The action takes place in a cavernous fashion house where high-end models are dressed, primped and prepared to don their haute couture and walk the runway, offering ample opportunity for the camera to both leer at a bevy of young women and examine the way they’re degraded by their industry, which treats them as little more than domesticated animals. When one of the company’s girls is violently murdered, it throws the entire organization into an uproar, with suspicion landing on almost every person employed in the building. What are we to make of the fact that none of the deaths can be traced to any individual? Bava ultimately uses a variety of simple (but effective) tricks to divert the audience’s suspicions until his big reveal. It’s the set-up for an old-fashioned murder mystery, but Blood and Black Lace also deviates from its forebears by being less concerned about the mystery and suspects on hand than it is with the killings themselves. This truly feels like a ground zero for the pulpy, grindhouse aesthetic that prioritizes cinematic death sequences, and the manner of the deaths, above all else. The unfortunate crew of models in the film bite the dust in all manner of ways, both inventive and notably grisly for the time, whether it’s burned to death by being pushed against a hot furnace, drowned in the bathtub or being stabbed through the face with a spiked glove. The film makes it clear: You are there to watch people die, and die in the most stylish way possible. —Jim Vorel


The Lighthouse

lighthouse-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Robert Eggers
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman
Genre: Drama, Horror
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%
Rating: R
Runtime: 110 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Sometimes a film is so bizarre, so elegantly shot and masterfully performed, that despite its helter-skelter pace and muddled messaging I can’t help but fall in love with it. So it was with the latest film by Robert Eggers. An exceptional, frightening duet between Robert Pattinson and Willam Dafoe, The Lighthouse sees two sailors push one another to the brink of absolute madness, threatening to take the audience with them. Fresh off the sea, Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) arrive at the isolated locale and immediately get to work cleaning, maintaining and fixing up their new home. Everything comes in twos: two cups, two plates, two bowls, two beds. The pair work on the same schedule every day, only deviating when Thomas decides something different needs Ephraim’s attention. Like newlyweds sharing meals across from one another each morning and every evening, the men begin to develop a relationship. It takes a long time for either of the men to speak. They’re both accustomed to working long days in relative silence. They may not possess the inner peace of a Zen monk, but their thought processes are singular and focused. Only the lighthouse and getting back to the mainland matters. Eggers uses the sound of the wind and the ocean to create a soundscape of harsh conditions and natural quarantine. The first words spoken invoke a well-worn prayer, not for a happy life, or a fast workday, but to stave off death. A visceral ride, The Lighthouse explores man’s relationship to the sea, specifically through the lens of backbreaking labor. Thomas and Ephraim’s relationship is like a Rorschach test. At times they are manager and worker, partners, enemies, father and son, competitors, master and pet, and victim and abuser. In many ways Eggers’ latest reminds of Last Tango in Paris, which explored a similar unhealthy relationship dynamic. Just as captivating, The Lighthouse shines. —Joelle Monique


Leave No Trace

leave-no-trace-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Debra Granik
Stars: Ben Foster, Thomasin McKenzie, Dale Dickey, Dana Millican, Jeff Kober, Alyssa Lynn
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 109 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

It takes all of Leave No Trace before anyone tells Will (Ben Foster) he’s broken. The man knows, perhaps ineffably, that something’s fundamentally wrong inside of him, but it isn’t until the final moments of Debra Granik’s film that someone gives that wrongness finality, that someone finally allows Will to admit—and maybe accept—he can’t be fixed. Why: Granik affords us little background, save tattoos and a few helicopter-triggered flashbacks and a visit to the hospital to acquire PTSD meds all implying that Will is a military vet, though what conflict he suffered and for how long remains a mystery. As does the fate of Will’s deceased wife, mother to teenage girl Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). As does the length of time Will and his daughter have been living off the grid, hidden within the more than 5,000 acres of Portland’s Forest Park, a damp, verdant chunk of the city’s northwest side overlooking the Willamette River. As does the pain at the heart of Leave No Trace, though it hurts no less acutely for that. Toward the end of this quietly stunning film, Tom shows her father a beehive she’s only recently begun to tend, slowly pulling out a honeycomb tray and tipping a scrambling handful of the insects into her cupped palm without any fear of being stung. Will looks on, proud of his daughter’s connection to such a primal entity, knowing that he could never do the same. Will begins to understand, as Tom does, that she is not broken like him. Leave No Trace asserts, with exquisite humanity and a long bittersweet sigh, that the best the broken can do is disappear before they break anyone else. —Dom Sinacola


Transit

transit-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Christian Petzold
Stars: Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer, Godehard Giese, Lilien Batman, Maryam Zaree, Matthias Brandt, Barbara Auer
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 101 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

In Christian Petzold’s Transit, based on Anna Segher’s WWII-based novel of the same name, the writer-director strips all context from his story, but not by pulling it out of time. Instead, Petzold’s limned his adaptation in modern technologies and settings—contemporary cars line the streets of today’s Marseille; flat screens hang unimpressively in bars; military police dress in black riot gear, not a swastika in sight—though no one uses a cell phone or a computer, doomed to repeat themselves in bureaucratic offices and waiting in endless lines, all while the enemy, an occupational force, quickly sweeps across France. Odd and surprisingly high-concept, though never pleased with itself, Transit removes context by confusing it, treating its characters as if they’re in a kind of existential wartime limbo, forever fated to keep looking: for escape, for a lost loved one, for some food to eat or a bed to lie in, for a reason to keep enduring. Transit could’ve been a sci-fi drama were its characters ever shown an alternate reality. One character, Georg (Franz Rogowski) is a German refugee scratching his way through his adopted country, tasked with delivering letters and documents to a writer named Weidel, but, upon arriving, discovers the writer’s committed suicide (leaving an awful mess for the hotel staff). Hearing that the German forces are quickly consuming France, Georg travels to Marseille, where he hopes to make accommodations to leave before the Axis powers arrive, taking with him the identity of Weidel and an omnipresent narrator (Matthias Brandt) who speaks of Dawn of the Dead and Georg’s every emotion even though the narrator never hides that he’s the bartender of the bar Georg silently frequents, piecing together this long forlorn story Georg’s woven for him. Georg isn’t aloof or indifferent or even remotely manipulative, just adrift, and not long after he sets up camp in Marseille, he realizes the beautiful and strange woman who floats through the streets and consulates tapping men on the shoulder is Marie (Paula Beer), Weidel’s widow, looking for her husband. Only Georg knows he’s dead; Georg falls in love with Marie. Though touch screen technology obviously exists in its world, characters do not use phones, can’t Google anything or dig up maps or get immediate confirmation that a loved one has died. Instead, they walk, and they carry letters to one another, and find happiness in individual, brief moments—because maybe they know of nothing better out there, or maybe because that is what defines them. Defines us. Transit is a powerful film, equally celebrating, mourning and fascinated by the ability of people to keep going. At one point, Georg describes to a Mexican official a short story about a waiting room in which denizens take turns entering hell, only to discover that the waiting room is hell. Knowing this, we still sit there. It takes a magnificent spirit to keep waiting. —Dom Sinacola


Midsommar

midsommar-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Ari Aster
Stars: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper, Vilhelm Blomgren
Genre: Horror, Drama, Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%
Rating: R
Runtime: 140 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Christian (Jack Reynor) cannot give Dani (Florence Pugh) the emotional ballast she needs to survive. This was probably the case even before the family tragedy that occurs in Midsommar’s literal cold open, in which flurries of snow limn the dissolution of Dani’s family. We’re dropped into her trauma, introduced to her only through her trauma and her need for support she can’t get. This is all we know about her: She is traumatized, and her boyfriend is barely decent enough to hold her, to stay with her because of a begrudging obligation to her fragile psyche. His long, deep sighs when they talk on the phone mirror the moaning, retching gasps Pugh so often returns to in panic and pain. Her performance is visceral. Midsommar is visceral. There is viscera, just, everywhere. As in his debut, Hereditary, writer-director Ari Aster casts Midsommar as a conflagration of grief—as in Hereditary, people burst into flames in Midsommar’s climactic moments—and no ounce of nuance will keep his characters from gasping, choking and hollering all the way to their bleakly inevitable ends. Moreso than in Hereditary, what one assumes will happen to our American 20-somethings does happen, prescribed both by decades of horror movie precedent and by the exigencies of Aster’s ideas about how human beings process tragedy. Aster births his worlds in pain and loss; chances are it’ll only get worse.

One gets the sense watching Midsommar that Aster’s got everything assembled rigorously, that he’s the kind of guy who can’t let anything go—from the meticulously thought-out belief system and ritual behind his fictional rural community, to the composition of each and every shot. Aster and his DP Pawel Pogorzelski find the soft menace inherent to their often beautiful setting, unafraid of just how ghastly and unnatural such brightly colored flora can appear—especially when melting or dilating, breathing to match Dani’s huffs and the creaking, wailing goth-folk of The Haxan Cloak. Among Midsommar’s most unsettling pleasures are its subtle digital effects, warping its reality ever so slightly (the pulsing of wood grain, the fish-eye lensing of a grinning person’s eye sockets) so that once noticed, you’ll want it to stop. Like a particularly bad trip, the film bristles with the subcutaneous need to escape, with the dread that one is trapped. In this community in the middle of nowhere, in this strange culture, in this life, in your body and its existential pain: Aster imprisons us so that when the release comes, it’s as if one’s insides are emptying cataclysmically. In the moment, it’s an assault. It’s astounding. —Dom Sinacola


Honey Boy

honey-boy-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Director: Alma Har’el
Stars: Shia LeBeouf, FKA Twigs, Noah Jupe, Lucas Hedges
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
Rating: R
Runtime: 93 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Honey Boy, to the ear, rings of stunt filmmaking, a redemption tale for freeing Shia LaBeouf from actor prison. In his case, “prison” is more a matter of public opinion than actual industry cancellation, but the truth is that Honey Boy is the truth: LaBeouf wrote the film’s screenplay as part of his rehab treatment after flying so far off the rails over the course of the decade, and in turn the screenplay wound up in the hands of Israeli-American filmmaker Alma Har’el. She sees, in LaBeouf’s story, a portrait of tormented American manhood, passed down like a volatile heirloom from father to son. In turn, she approaches the telling delicately, with compassion and even love for James (LaBeouf), the father, and empathy for Otis, the son, alternately played by Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges as Har’el cuts from past to present and back again.

There’s harsh, guiding realism in Honey Boy, no better articulated than in one key moment where Jupe plays interpreter for James and his mother (voiced by Natasha Lyonne) in a shouting match staged by phone. Caught between James in person and mom in his ear, young Otis does what he does best—performing—as he dictates his parents’ words to one another. The scene cuts deep. Imagining boys and girls like Otis, forced to play referee between squabbling guardians, is made easy by the frankness of Har’el’s filmmaking. But she uses actual realism as a path toward magical realism, the aesthetic in which she resolves the movie, and in so doing resolves Otis’s (and LaBeouf’s) complicated feelings toward dad. Honey Boy is undoubtedly a redemptive film, but it isn’t redemptive at the expense of honesty and accountability. This is perhaps the best apology for bad behavior any celebrity captured in headlines has ever offered, and an extraordinary act of self-examination. —Andy Crump


Lean on Pete

lean-on-pete-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Andrew Haigh
Stars: Charlie Plummer, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Travis Fimmel, Steve Zahn
Genre: Drama
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
Rating: R
Runtime: 121 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Lean on Pete flows with such gentle beauty that it may be hard to grasp precisely what it’s about or where it’s going. But the power of writer-director Andrew Haigh’s sublime drama is that it can support myriad interpretations while remaining teasingly mysterious—like its main character, it’s always just a bit out of reach, constantly enticing us to look closer. Based on Willy Vlautin’s 2010 novel, the movie is a smashing introduction to Charlie Plummer, who was the kidnapped John Paul Getty III in last year’s All the Money in the World. Here, he plays Charley Thompson, a 15-year-old living with his drinking, backslapping dad (Travis Fimmel) in Portland. Charley has a sweet face and a soft-spoken manner—when he talks, the last few words evaporate into the air, as if he’s too shy to even be bold enough to enunciate—but early on, we get a sense that there’s a craftiness underneath that demeanor. The first indication is his willingness to lie about his age to Del (Steve Buscemi), a craggy horse owner who reluctantly takes him on as a caretaker for his elderly racehorse Lean on Pete. Charley doesn’t know a thing about horses, but he’s anxious to find something to do now that he’s in a new town with his father, their reasons for leaving Spokane unspecified but clearly dispiriting. Familiar narrative tropes emerge in Lean on Pete: the boy-and-his-dog drama, the coming-of-age story, the father-and-son character piece, the road movie. Haigh breezes past them all, seeking something more elliptical in this deceptively slim story. With the patience and minimalist command of a Kelly Reichardt, he doesn’t dictate where his film goes, seemingly letting Charley’s restlessness call the shots. The boy’s journey gathers force and poignancy as it moves forward, and the more we understand about Charley the more unknowable he becomes. Along the way, we meet other people and see other worlds—the life of young military veterans, the reality of homelessness, the grind of the low-rent racing circuit—but Haigh views it all with the same unassuming compassion we see in Charley’s quiet eyes. —Tim Grierson


One Child Nation

one-child-nation-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2019
Directors: Nanfu Wang, Lynn Zhang
Genre: Documentary
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%
Rating: R
Runtime: 89 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

The idea of the perfect family unit, its presence on television or in advertisements or in books, is a kind of propaganda. Everyone knows this, knows that idea embeds itself into political and cultural consciousnesses, knows that propaganda becomes an integral part of the identity, of the very notion of “family.” In Nanfu Wang and Lynn Zhang’s blistering One Child Nation, Wang digs deep into her past, comprised of the artifacts of propaganda that allowed the “One-Child Policy” in China to flourish. The film strikes a balance between investigative journalism and memoir, interrogating both the cultural texts that propagated the policy’s importance—its “benefits”—as well as the people in her life who were complicit in its consequences. It’s a documentary that cuts close to the bone, its rawness never undermining its commitment to challenging the institutions that allowed such a destructive policy to operate. As Wang questions her own connection to family and policy, the film unearths how politics can so easily shape family life itself. —Kyle Turner


Ash Is Purest White

ash-is-purest-white-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Jia Zhangke
Stars: Tao Zhiao, Fan Liao
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Romance
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 99%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 136 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Ash Is Purest White’s story spans decades, a staggeringly beautiful epic, as comedic as it is heartbreaking, that stills feels impossibly intimate—confined, even, and not by space or imagery, but by emotion. China, over the decades through which the film sweeps, tumbles amidst modernization with little care for those who can’t afford to change with the times. Then there is love, passion and crime: At its heart, Ash Is Purest White is a romance between two criminals, Qiao (Tao Zhao) and Bin (Fan Liao). They are serious people with serious demeanors, their day-to-day lives oscillating between the nothingness of a routine lifestyle and violence. Yet, the violence is rarely ever seen—though when it is, Zhangke Jia directs it with a sense of relentless desperation and urgency—and most of the violence of the emotional sort. Yet, there is also a grand sense of human comedy that hangs over the film’s proceedings, as the stories of Jia’s core characters reflect China at large: Everything is changing, nothing is sacred, the past pales in comparison to the rapidly approaching future. Reality can be fought, but time is inescapable—always encroaching and always passing us by. —Cole Henry


Les Diaboliques

les diaboliques poster (Custom).jpg Year: 1955
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Stars: Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, Simone Signoret
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 107 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Watching Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques through the lens of the modern horror film, especially the slasher flick—replete with un-killable villain (check); ever-looming jump scares (check); and a “final girl” of sorts (check?)—one would not have to squint too hard to see a new genre coming into being. You could even make a case for Clouzot’s canonization in horror, but to take the film on only those terms would miss just how masterfully the iconic French director could wield tension. Nothing about Les Diaboliques dips into the scummy waters of cheap thrills: The tightly wound tale of two women, a fragile wife (Véra Clouzot) and severe mistress (Simone Signoret) to the same abusive man (Paul Meurisse), who conspire to kill him in order to both reel in the money rightfully owed the wife, and to rid the world of another asshole, Diaboliques may not end with a surprise outcome for those of us long inured to every modern thriller’s perfunctory twist, but it’s still a heart-squeezing two hours, a murder mystery executed flawlessly. That Clouzot preceded this film with The Wages of Fear and Le Corbeau seems as surprising as the film’s outcome: By the time he’d gotten to Les Diaboliques, the director’s grasp over pulpy crime stories and hard-nosed drama had become pretty much his brand. That the film ends with a warning to audiences to not give away the ending for others—perhaps Clouzot also helped invent the spoiler alert?—seems to make it clear that even the director knew he had something devilishly special on his hands. —Dom Sinacola


Bisbee ’17

bisbee-17-movie-poster.jpg Year: 2018
Director: Robert Greene
Genre: Documentary
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Rating: NR
Runtime: 89 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Robert Greene opens his essential new documentary, Bisbee ’17, with a quote from American writer Colin Dickey’s 2016 book, Ghostland: “Cities that are haunted … seem to straddle past and present as though two versions of the same city are overlaid on top of each other.” He’s talking about haunted manors littering the United States specifically and not the Arizona burg of Bisbee, but the town Greene acquaints us with indeed straddles its past and present, and something more—a collision between the two in the form of theater. In 1917, at the height of World War I, Bisbee was a critical hub in the war effort, not just a copper town but the copper town churning out minerals and profits. Then the miners went on strike, demanding safer work conditions and railing against campwide discrimination. To quash protests, Bisbee’s sheriff deputized a small army of locals, rounded up strikers in the early morning of July 12th, stuck them on cattle cars, and dropped them off in the New Mexico desert in an effort by the Phelps Dodge mining company and Bisbee’s law to halt dissent and restore order to their bottom line. Greene comes into the story 100 years later, as Bisbee’s current residents, prepping for the Bisbee Deportation’s centennial, decide they must recognize the evils of Bisbee yesteryear. How best to do so? By putting on a reenactment, casting townsfolk as miners, as the sheriff’s posse, as witnesses to the travesty. This is Greene’s jam: He blends traditional documentary techniques, talking head interviews and appraisals of primary sources, with the artifice of feature narrative. Greene’s craftsmanship invites awe as easily as the reenactment itself, scrappy but successfully harrowing in execution. The players get into their roles with more than professional enthusiasm—their performances exhibit a relish and zeal both shaped by an underlying desperation to observe the truth when for so long Bisbee has lived with truth unspoken. As the crimes of the deportation haunt Bisbee and its inhabitants, so, too, are we haunted by them through the filter of Greene’s lens. But that experience, the experience of being haunted, proves vital. Maybe it’s necessary to let history haunt us. —Andy Crump


Wheels on Meals

wheels-on-meals-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1984
Director: Sammo Hung
Stars: Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao
Genre: Action & Adventure, Comedy
Rotten Tomatoes Score: N/A
Rating: NR
Runtime: 98 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

Wheels on Meals is a silly, silly movie—but damn is its action amazing. Hong Kong trios don’t get better than Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung, although Hung’s role in this one is minimal. Rather, everything comes down to some incredible fight scenes featuring Chan and Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, a real-life American kickboxing champion who makes the perfect dance partner for Chan in several high-octane brawls. Their final confrontation isn’t just a great scene, it might be the best one-on-one fight of Chan’s caree, with Benny proving he’s Jackie’s match. In fact, it’s The Jet who pulls off one of the coolest fight scene feats I’ve ever seen, the supposedly unintentional (and unfaked) “candle kick,” in which a missed spin kick generates such force that it blows out all of the lit candles on a candelabra several feet away. The film’s backbone is a story about a kidnapped Spanish heiress, but its kicks are far more fascinating. —Jim Vorel


To Catch a Thief

to-catch-a-thief-movie-poster.jpg Year: 1955
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, John Williams
Genre: Drama, Romance
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%
Rating: PG
Runtime: 106 minutes

Watch on Amazon Prime

But really—he didn’t do it. Cary Grant plays John Robie, a retired jewel thief who’s enjoying his golden years tending vines on the French Riviera. Just when the Grenache is hitting the perfect Brix level, a series of copycat heists put Robie back in the thiefly limelight. Seeking to clear things up, he compiles a list of locals who are known to have heistable jewels, and being a smart and wily guy, he starts tailing a very, very pretty one (Francie, played by Grace Kelly). Budding romance can be an accidental side-effect of these things, but when Francie’s ice does go missing, she suspects John and it sours their relationship, as one might expect. John goes on the proverbial lam to get to the bottom of it. Talk about jewels! Nothing ever sparkled quite like Cary Grant and Grace Kelly onscreen together, especially with the legendary Edith Head on costume design—and their peerless charisma is in amazing hands here. The film itself is a bauble, unapologetically so: light and frothy and absolutely not Rear Window (none of which is an indictment). Sometimes it’s enough for something to simply be charming and beautiful. This film proves it. —Amy Glynn

Also in Movies